For thousands of years, cultures throughout the world have cooked food in the ground. From the Hawaiian Imu cooking to the North American clambake, these traditions were expressions of creativity and of necessity, facilitating an even, slow cooking of the food.
The origins of barbacoa are no different. Although today it’s prepared using different methods, the concept of cooking a whole beef head in the ground with wood coals was known in the Aztec culture as tatema. Throughout Mexico and South Texas, barbacoa may refer to different meats and styles of preparation. In this case, I am referring to the process of slow cooking, overnight, a whole beef or lamb head in a pit in the ground, wrapped in maguey leaves. It’s just one of the traditional methods used by vaqueros, the Latin American cattle herders who once roamed the plains of Texas and Mexico.
To this day, we prepare this entire recipe in the backyard on my family’s ranch, from harvesting the maguey leaves to digging the pit and gathering the mesquite. You can make it by simply cooking in a hole dug directly into the ground that’s then been lined with rocks or firebricks, or you can slide a barrel (or two large pipes, as we did) into a hole to make a more permanent in-ground barbecue. Either way, this kind of pit cooking keeps age-old traditions alive.
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Makes:6 to 8 pounds of cooked meat
- Rocks or firebricks
- Mesquite wood chunks
- Chimney starter
- Metal cable
These recipes were created in US Customary measurements and the conversion to metric is being done by calculations. They should be accurate, but it is possible there could be an error. If you find one, please let us know in the comments at the bottom of the page
- Fire Up. Dig a 36-inch-diameter hole 4 to 5 feet in the ground (or see Notes for alternatives).
- Line the bottom of the pit with rocks or firebricks.
- Build the fire using large (6-by-18-inch) chunks of mesquite wood.
- For the maguey leaves, prepare an open fire on a grill. The mesquite fire in the pit will be too hot.
- Prep the maguey leaves. Use gloves when handling raw maguey leaves, as their juice is a natural skin irritant. Trim away the spines along the sides of each leaf. Best to do this outside as it can get messy!
- Grill the maguey. Cook the maguey leaves on the grill or over hot coals until they are pliable and the liquid has been completely extracted, 10 to 15 minutes. You will hear them pop and sizzle.
- Prep the lamb. Using a paring knife, make incisions in the lamb head and then stuff them with garlic cloves. Season all over with salt then slather all over with 4 cups of the salsa.
- Use a large pot that has a top. It will be inserted into your pit. Overlap the cooked maguey leaves vertically, so as to completely line the bottom and sides of the pot. The tips of the leaves may hang over or out of the rim.
- Place the lamb head inside the pot with the nose facing up. Fold over the maguey leaves to completely wrap the lamb head.
- Add 3 to 4 inches of water and then secure the lid to prevent steam from escaping. You can tie it or weigh it down with a rock.
- Use a metal cable to lower the pot into the pit in the ground. Make sure not to use rope as it could burn. Cover the hole thoroughly, so that no air can escape. For example, you can use a piece of sheet metal on top. Corrugated roof panels can also work. Do not use wood as the fire is too hot. Cover the metal top and the area surrounding the hole with dirt. Covering the hole will cut off the oxygen source to the fire, leaving only the heated rocks and the burning coals, which allows hot steam to cook the meat without a raging fire overcooking the meat.
- Cook the lamb. Steam until the meat falls off the bone, a process that should take 8 hours. Be sure to watch your timing. If the meat isn't fully cooked, the fire will no longer be hot enough to put it back in the ground and continue cooking.
- Remove the meat from the bones then separate it by cuts such as tongue, cheek, and so on. Or slice and serve all the meat mixed together.
- Serve. Reap the benefits of all your hard work. Served the sliced or shredded meats on tortillas with the remaining 2 cups salsa, some onion, cilantro and lime wedges for squeezing.